US Adds to Chaos in Nato
The surprise announcement that the US will redeploy 9,500 troops from Germany, reducing military personnel there from 34,500 to 25,000 by September, is about much more than soldiers. While the details of how this redeployment will work have not been forthcoming, leading some to speculate that the announcement is more political bluff than reality, the damage done to US-German relations and Nato credibility is real. The announced redeployment reflects growing divisions within Nato about European military and energy security policy that call into question the sustainability of the Atlantic alliance. Moreover, proposed changes in the structure and mission of the US State Department that could take place in a second Trump administration suggest the chaos and confusion engendered by the announced troop withdrawal could become the norm, as opposed to the exception, if Trump is re-elected.
The Trump administration shocked its German and Nato allies by announcing that it plans to withdraw some 9,500 troops from Germany by September. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was taken by surprise by the announcement, which appears to have been made with little or no consultation with either the German government or the Pentagon. Some retired US diplomats and military officers have expressed doubt that the Trump administration will follow through with it. John Kornblum, who served as the US ambassador to Germany from 1997 to 2001, told a German newspaper, the Passauer Neue Presse, “I predict there will be no withdrawal of these soldiers. Trump makes big announcements and then doesn’t act.”
Kornblum’s sentiments were echoed by retired US Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who commanded the US Army in Europe from 2014-17. In an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, Hodges agreed with Kornblum that the reports out of the White House should not be taken at face value. This, however, did not make the reported troop withdrawal any less damaging to US-German relations. Hodges characterized the move as “a colossal mistake” that would negatively impact “the cohesion of the alliance” and send the wrong message.
However, according to the recently retired US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, the proposed troop withdrawal is very real. In an interview with the German newspaper Bild Zeitung, Grennell confirmed the US plans, noting that this plan had been in the works since September 2019, when it was presented at the Nato Summit in London. While the German media had dismissed the proposed troop withdrawal then, Grennell said the decision by Trump to bring the US troops home should not come as a surprise. “American taxpayers are getting a little bit tired of paying too much for the defense of other countries,” Grennell noted, referring to the long-standing US demand that Nato members should commit at least 2% of their GDP to defense spending. For example, Germany’s defense budget for 2019 as 1.36% of GDP. Trump, Grennell stated, had been making that point for a long time and his decision to act on it was only to be expected.
Absent specifics about the workings of the withdrawal, it is difficult to ascertain whether the informed opinions of Kornblum and Hodges outweigh the politicized insight of Grennell, a political appointee who resigned as ambassador to assist Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign. Grennell had been threatening to withdraw US troops from Germany for some time. In August 2019, Grennell told the German press that “It is actually offensive to assume that the US taxpayer must continue to pay to have 50,000-plus Americans in Germany, but the Germans get to spend their surplus on domestic programs.” In what appeared to be coordinated messaging, the US ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, tweeted, “Poland meets its 2% of GDP spending obligation towards Nato. Germany does not. We would welcome American troops in Germany to come to Poland.”
While there has been speculation in the European and US press that at least some of the troops withdrawn from Germany would be redeployed to Poland, such a move is a non-starter. This speculation stems partly from the high-profile bromance between Trump and Polish President Andrzej Duda. At their White House meeting in June 2019, Trump promised to deploy some 1,000 US troops to a Polish-built base in Poland, which he referred to as “Fort Trump.” And on the heels of the announcement that US troops would be leaving Germany, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told Polish radio, “I deeply hope that as a result of the many talks that we had … part of the troops based today in Germany which are being removed by the United States … will indeed come to Poland.”
In reality, it’s highly unlikely any US troops will go to Poland. Plans for a “Fort Trump” never got off the drawing board: Poland wanted the troops stationed on its border with Belarus, while the Trump administration, concerned that such an act would be construed by Russia as unduly provocative, wanted them further west, near Poland’s border with Germany. Moreover, Poland balked at the US’ insistence that troops permanently stationed in Poland operate under a status of forces agreement granting them enhanced immunity from prosecution for crimes committed in Poland. In any event, the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic has made the project’s $2 billion-plus price tag unsustainable. In this light, the Kornblum-Hodge interpretation looks increasingly valid. Withdrawing 9,500 US troops from Germany is beyond impractical at a time when the US is working to reinforce its presence in Europe by some 50,000 new troops and there are few other places in Europe to relocate the German-based US troops.
If the announced troop withdrawal is, in fact, little more than a game of New York real estate negotiating brinksmanship elevated to the world stage, the damage it has caused is still real, and perhaps irreparable. US-German relations, already fractured by the US criticism and sanctioning of the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project as well as Merkel’s refusal to attend Trump’s envisioned G7 Summit, where China would be spurned and Russia invited, were sent into a downward spiral by the announced troop withdrawal. Some German politicians, including Merkel’s political allies, have called for the complete evacuation of all US forces from Germany, including US nuclear weapons stored on German soil.
Growing Nato Split
During the Cold War, West Germany was on the frontline of the Nato-Soviet standoff. Today, Germany is engaged in economic and diplomatic relations with Russia that often appear contradictory to US-Nato policies designed to contain Russian expansion. Poland has singled out Germany’s relationship with Russia as a security threat because it allows Russia to hold Germany and other European economies hostage to their dependence on supplies of Russian gas. In response, Poland is working with Croatia on the “Three Seas Initiative,” which aims at strengthening trade, infrastructure, energy and political cooperation among countries bordering the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Seas through energy and transport-related infrastructure projects. With the scope and funding of the effort in its early stages and hampered by the coronavirus recession, it looks more political than practical. The Trump administration has indicated its support because it seeks to rebalance German influence in Europe by leveraging US regional interests.
The deleterious effect of a US-German and German-Polish split on the Nato alliance cannot be overemphasized. The transatlantic alliance is in the midst of an identity crisis. On the one hand, it seeks to rebuild its diminished military character by reinforcing its Baltic and Polish flank and detering potential Russian aggression. On the other, it is trying to redefine itself as a political organization capable of leading a diplomatic effort to confront and contain Chinese expansion in the Pacific. The practicalities of any US troop withdrawal from Germany have undermined the former, while the timing of the decision to withdraw distracted and diminished the announcement by Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg of the latter. While not yet a sinking ship, the alliance is floundering in troubled diplomatic waters further churned by the policy maelstrom of the Trump administration.
The re-election of Trump in November could make the kind of chaos caused by the announced US troop withdrawal a model for future US diplomacy, as opposed to a cautionary tale. A new policy proposal, “Strengthening America & Countering Global Threats,” published by the Republican Study Committee, an adjunct of the conservative caucus of House Republicans closely aligned with Trump, proposes to completely revamp the US State Department. The existing Foreign Service would be replaced with a “new diplomatic corps rooted in merit rather than tenure,” meaning that political appointees, rather than career professionals, would be in charge of implementing policy. Under this model, the Grennell-Mosbacher school of partisan diplomacy would become the norm, supplanting the work of career diplomats such as John Kornblum. If this policy is implemented in a second Trump administration, the future of US diplomacy would be guided by the political needs of the president, rather than the national security requirements of the nation.